I've been watching NBC's marathon Olympics coverage (no pun intended) , and one thing has become extraordinarily clear: I have got to get to the gym more often.
Ultimately futile attempts at personal self-improvement aside, watching the Olympics this year feels somehow different, a bit more meaningful, than it has in several quadrennials past, and for that, I have two unlikely candidates to thank. The first is George W. Bush, and the second is (are, actually) the Wachowski Brothers.
Regular readers of this column may be surprised that I'm willing to thank George W. Bush for much of anything, but his administration's policies have indeed allowed me to watch the coverage with a new gratitude. Not, as he himself has suggested in previous days, because there are teams from Iraq and Afghanistan that are competing here because of the wars our country has fought. (Though I do think that pro- and antiwar voices can both agree that the Iraqi team is a lot better off without Uday Hussein waiting to torture them if they lose.)
No, the real reason to thank George W. Bush is that he has, unintentionally, given us the desire to watch the Olympics patriotically, to take pride in the achievements of our athletes who stand, laurels on their heads and medals round their necks, dressed in red, white, and blue and (if they've won gold) with the Star Spangled Banner playing. At a time when, often enough, it seems that the flag exists primarily to be wrapped around partisan policies and ideas and patriotism wielded as a cudgel to stifle dissent, we can, briefly, cherish those in Athens who are indisputably non-political, who essentially belong to neither Republicans nor to Democrats but to those more rarefied divisions: Backstroker, All-Around Gymnast, Sprinter, and the like.
I'm also grateful to the Wachowski Brothers, the sibling duo who introduced us to The Matrix, and, more importantly, popularized the computerized special effects known as "bullet time" and who took wire-work - where actors "fly" while attached to wires, which are then brushed out of the screen via computer - to new heights. Thanks to the two of them, and others like them, the human body has, in movies and television, become less and less of a source of wonderful physical achievement and more and more a canvas to be acted upon. No one really believes that Keanu Reeves can do what the Wachowski Brothers make him do, and, with more and more time, any feat we see in the movies becomes suspect, and, therefore, only superficially impressive. After a glut of summer blockbusters stretched year-round, we begin to long for something both remarkable and real.
And the Olympics does not fail to disappoint. The cliché that everyone there is a winner may be one of the more insulting things you could say to a world-class athlete But the fact is that not only winners like Amanda Beard, Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin, Paul Hamm, and Carly Patterson, but every athlete who graces NBC's coverage, from every country, reminds us that the human body, through a combination of natural talent and incredible discipline, is capable of remarkable feats that seem like Hollywood magic but aren't.
So thank you, Messrs. Bush and Wachowski, for allowing me to care deeply about beach volleyball, double trap shooting and floor exercises; for speculating about Trinidad and Tobago's chances for a medal in swimming and varying judo weight classes. The only problem is that with the hundreds of hours of coverage, I may never leave my chair again, much less get to the gym.